If you look up “Café Society” on yer Wikipedia, you’ll see this:
Leaving aside for the moment the rather opinionated first line, it is the first of these bullets that we are concerned with here. Of the three movies mentioned, none has anything to do with the nightclub, which would seem ripe for the documentary treatment. But filmic evidence is thin on the ground; it may well be that clubgoers of the day didn’t care to have cameras around. (And good for them.)
If you click through you’ll see that Café Society was “the first racially integrated night club in the United States,” founded by one Barney Josephson in imitation of European cabarets. In his 1988 New York Times obituary, Josephson is quoted as saying:
I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front. There wasn’t, so far as I know, a place like it in New York or in the whole country.
Josephson himself was Jewish and had been a shoe salesman before deciding to go into showbiz. According to Elijah Wald’s Society Blues, “He had often been to the Cotton Club — the famous Harlem showcase for black entertainers, where the few black customers were seated at the back — and the Kit Kat Club, which had an all-black staff and entertainment policy but barred blacks from the audience…. He thought New York was ready for a different kind of room.”
The name of the club he started was carefully chosen and rich with irony. Back to the Wikipedia:
Josephson also intended the club to defy the pretensions of the rich; he chose the name to mock [conservative pundit of the day] Clare Boothe Luce and what she referred to as “café society,” the habitués of more upscale nightclubs, and that wry satirical note was carried through in murals done by Anton Refregier, Russian immigrant who is more well known for the San Francisco Rincon Annex murals. Josephson trademarked the name Café Society, a phrase coined but not trademarked by Maury Paul, a society columnist who wrote as “Cholly Knickerbocker” for the New York Journal American. He also advertised the club as ”The Wrong Place for the Right People.”
A quick search reveals that a few years ago Barney Josephson’s widow assembled an oral history called Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People, and immediately the alarm bells begin to ring. Is yet another rabbit hole opening up under the existing one, destabilizing the scaffolding I’ve built to try to get back to what I started writing about in the first place? No, it cannot be allowed; that will have to be an exploration for another year.
Of course Josh White played at Café Society, which is how we got here. So did Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Billie Holiday, Imogene Coca, Zero Mostel, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, the Dixie Hummingbirds, and the Golden Gate Quartet, just to pick the names I recognize. (“Pearl Bailey was fired for being ‘too much of an Uncle Tom,’” says the ’pedia, “and Carol Channing was fired for an impersonation of Ethel Waters.”) The audience included people like Paul Robeson, Ingrid Bergman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, and Joe Louis.
And what did he play? Says Elijah Wald:
In one of his first extensive interviews, the New York Post said that although Josh was “famed as a singer of traditional spirituals and blues, he is not satisfied with singing in these forms alone. He cannot see why the Negro must be represented only by Tin-Pan Alley, or by Uncle Tom’s cries to Heaven. He likes best to sing out directly and clearly against Jim Crow practices, as against everything else under the sun that stands in the way of Democracy, equality and justice for everybody. No night-club can dilute his fervor.
Josh’s new emphasis was shown by the three songs noted in Variety’s review of his twelve-minute debut set: “Little Man Standing on a Fence,” “Blues in Berlin,” and “The Cherry, the Chicken, and the Baby” (usually called “The Riddle Song” or “I Gave My Love a Cherry”). The first two were newly composed topical pieces; the third was a medieval English ballad. Blues, in the old sense, was not even represented.